“Star Spangled Banner” (adopted 1931)
John Stafford Smith (1750-1836)
[View the bottom of this page to listen to this selection as you enjoy the Program Notes]
Note of Interest: Before the majestic, iconic “The Star-Spangled Banner” became America’s beloved anthem, it was an English drinking tune.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” became America’s national anthem in 1931. The instantly recognizable tune expresses deep feelings for the nation’s flag and all that it means to be a proud American.
A performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” often includes standing and placing hand over heart, whether at a sporting event, patriotic celebration, or concert. It might bring to mind Lady Gaga, Renee Fleming, Whitney Houston, or any number of great singers in memorable performances. The anthem is known to produce a flood of emotion as its first most recognizable musical notes begin to play.
“O say can you see by the dawn’s early light…”
It’s belted out with confident fervor…until, alas, many resort to mumbling along because the lyrics are, frankly, difficult to remember, the notes far-ranging, the high notes best left to the professionals. Not that anyone cares! It’s the Star-Spangled Banner! Mumble loud and proud.
A 35-year-old American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, is to thank, in part, for the anthem, inspired by the War of 1812, which began when the United States declared war on Great Britain (despite the fact that the British greatly outgunned the U.S. army and navy). By August 1814, British forces had attacked Washington, D.C., torching the Capitol, the Treasury, and the President’s house.
In September, the British placed a friend of Key’s under arrest, and Key, along with several companions, boarded the flagship of the British fleet on the Chesapeake Bay, hoping to negotiate a release.
The meeting was surprisingly friendly and their efforts successful, but because Key and friends were now aware of an impending attack on Baltimore, they weren’t allowed to leave.
On Sept. 13, through a spyglass aimed eight miles away, Key observed in the night sky “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” as British warships fired a torrent of shells and rockets onto Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. The relentless bombardment continued for 25 long hours and became known as The Battle of Baltimore.
Key later wrote, “It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone.” By all accounts, the British were winning.
But in the clearing smoke of “the dawn’s early light” on Sept. 14, it was not the British Union Jack that Key saw flying over the fort—but the American flag. America had prevailed, and the sight of those “broad stripes and bright stars” inspired Key to begin writing a poem on the spot, giving “proof through the night that our flag was still there.”
“O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave…”
What’s surprising—and a little disturbing—is that Key set America’s national anthem (in the aftermath of a war with Britain) to the tune of a popular English drinking song, set to music by the Englishman John Stafford Smith. Smith, a member of the Anacreontic Society, a drinking and singing club, had published “To Anacreon in Heaven” in 1799.
The making of the anthem became a family affair. Key’s brother-in-law, commander of a militia at Fort McHenry, had the song distributed under the name “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” The Baltimore Patriot printed it, and within weeks, the poem was published as a handbill under the title “Defiance of Fort McHenry.” Thankfully, the public renamed it “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and Congress made it the national anthem.